Mill Bay Traditional Martial Arts Academy
Mill Bay Traditional Martial Arts Academy
What’s In A Name; What Shorinji Ryu Karate Do Means
In this article I will explain the full title of Shorinji Ryu Karate Do in its meaning and purpose.
First a brief mention of how important the use of traditional calligraphy writing is when the names of martial arts are considered. Unlike western writing systems which have little room for interpretation in single words or phrases (because they are derived in order to phonetically sound out each word) old Chinese and Japanese calligraphy writing is a deeply artistic and interpretive form of writing. Each calligraphy character acts as a symbol for a complete idea and the same character can have different meanings in different contexts. Calligraphy writing is considered a highly aesthetic and cultured practice in and of itself and has been for centuries in both Japan and China. This is relevant to describing the what and why of the names of Traditional Martial Arts because the those names are translations of multiple Kanji (Japanese) or Hanzi (Chinese) logograms or calligraphy characters.
Of all martial art systems throughout the world Karate is definitely one of the most well known by name. There are dozens of styles with thousands of schools all over the planet. Despite this multitude of names they all can be traced to a group of small islands south of mainland Japan called the Ryukyu islands (that is if they genuinely are Karate styles). The largest of these islands being Okinawa island itself. The history of Karate and Okinawa are deeply tied. To fully explain that history would require volumes of material to cover and many other authors have done a great job of recording it. Richard Kim’s “The Weaponless Warriors” is an excellent example. For now however we are simply looking at what the name implies.
First the word Karate.
Karate is a combination of two Kanji characters, Kara and Te. The meaning of the term Kara has changed and been debated in its own history however it has now come to mean Empty, whereas Te has always meant hand. This idea of an “empty hand” has many reasons but most directly it signifies the idea that the natives of Okinawa lived under a strict ban on weapons for a great deal of their history. So as a consequence they had to defend themselves with “empty hands” or without the aid of any weapons. Other important but less direct meanings are, developing an open heart and mind, and the sort of paradoxical truth that when one develops a powerful punch with a closed fist they can more confidently empty those same hands to others knowing that they can handle whatever may come at them. This last meaning relates to a common theme in Martial Arts that of the paradox of how by learning powerful and potentially deadly combat techniques one can become immune to violence and attack on all levels.
Karate then represents the profound and complex truth that when one becomes empowered by learning to develop devastating hands they then can then become more compassionate and open to life. This idea cannot be adequately explained in words. One must seek the guidance of a qualified Sensei or teacher and spend many years studying with them to grasp the deeply profound truth that the art of Karate teaches on this level.
Then the term Shorinji Ryu.
Firstly the term Ryu simply means style or school. The term Shorinji however has a much more interesting and layered meaning as it is the Japanese spelling of the Chinese word Shaolin. The Shaolin temple schools in China are more or less the most famous Martial Art schools in history. Similar to the history of Okinawa the history of Shaolin is far to much for this article to do justice to, so again we will be focusing on why the Vancouver Traditional Martial Arts Dojo uses the name. Shaolin/Shorinji itself simply means small forest temple. This is because the first temples in China dedicated to self development through martial arts were located in a small forest setting but also because nature itself was considered the original teacher of all Zen realization.
The title Shorinji was given to us most directly from the great teacher Sensei Richard Kim. Sensei Kim seems to have chosen the name in part due to another very important and famous Karateka (meaning person who training in Karate), a man named Bushi Matsumura. Matsumura lived up until the late 19th century and is regarded as the father of almost all Okinawan Karate schools. Both of these men called the arts they lived by and taught Shorinji or Shaolin as a way to honour the idea that their Karate was not just a method of self defense techniques but a complete way of life.
This then is the core idea behind using this term that the real purpose of the training was to teach how to attain Zen or self realization through developing the various movements and exercises. My teacher Sensei Douglas Mortley has often said that Martial Arts are really just a way of using physical exercise to achieve enlightenment. That is the reason the term Shorinji is used. We teach Karate, Tai Chi, Jujutsu and Kobudo not to allow people to become walking lethal weapons but because these arts develop inner peace through compassion and humility via the alignment of body and mind, breath and spirit.
Finally the meaning of Do
The term Do simply means Path or Way. It is the same term used in almost all traditional Japanese or Japanese influenced arts like Aikido, Judo, Hapkido and Kendo. The path or way all these arts are speaking about is the path to Zen realization. This idea is very similar, or even identical, to the Chinese term Tao or Dao which also means the path to enlightenment. The idea being that when one begins training in a Dojo they are beginning to move towards their own highest potential. In fact the word Dojo means the place where the way is taught. This idea of a path one must travel to achieve enlightenment is mirrored by almost every other self development system in the world from Yoga to Shamanism. In fact it is often said that though there may be many paths there is only one mountain.
So to summarize, Shorinji Ryu Karate Do basically means the art of the open hand warrior school of Zen from the islands of Okinawa. Of course it should be obvious by this article that the name cannot fully illustrate what is being signified by the title the art is given. Martial Arts must be experienced directly for anyone to gain a true understanding of their inner knowledge and even then many years of consistent training are required before these deeper truths can be seen. In many ways these arts mirror life itself as they both are based on an ongoing process and neither can be fully experienced without developing both strength and openness.